Why The Girl Effect Needs Justice

by Holly Burkhalter | International Justice Mission
Monday, 10 August 2015 20:21 GMT

Photo courtesy International Justice Mission

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This week the United Nations announced the official list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to make the world a better place for everyone. Number sixteen stands out: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies, with access to justice for all. 

International Justice Mission serves thousands of clients around the world who have been victims of violence like slavery, rape and trafficking, and working on these cases has given us a picture of what justice for the poor looks like. This new Sustainable Development Goal now makes justice for the poor an aspiration and an obligation for the whole world.

The Justice goal isn’t just valuable in its own right.  It is key to making the other sixteen SDG’s meaningful to poor people. 

It turns out that the poorest of the poor aren’t only deprived of clean water and health care, education and jobs, but also the protection of the laws of their own country. 

Consider education. Governments, international development institutions, and NGO’s have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to get girls into school and keep them there. That is a very worthy effort that can have a disproportionately positive impact on girls’ lives, and on economic development in their families, communities and nations. 

But what happens to educational opportunity when girls are assaulted on their way to school or raped by teachers when they get there? 

The UN estimates that 4 billion people live outside the rule of law. In this world, criminals routinely avoid punishment. Laws exist, but they are not enforced.

According to the World Health Organization, for many poor girls, school is the most common place where sexual violence occurs. Sexual violence—or the fear of sexual violence—is a common reason girls leave school.

Though they are from two different continents, IJM clients Doris and Jean grew up in this world of frightening impunity.

Thirteen-year-old Doris was sexually assaulted by the bus driver who took her to and from school every day in the sprawling city of La Paz, Bolivia. The driver would drop her little brother off at an internet café, abuse Doris, then take the siblings home.

Doris’ mother was desperate for justice when she found out. She scraped together money to hire a lawyer, but it ran out quickly. The bus drive was the one with money and connections, and the case came to a standstill. 

In a classroom halfway around the world in Nairobi, Kenya, 8-year-old Jean was molested by a teacher. He had asked Jean to help carry textbooks to his classroom, then abused her while her friends played in a field outside.

Even when other teachers banded together to help Jean’s grandmother file an official police report, the case stalled out because there was not private counsel to push it forward. 

You cannot expect justice if you are among the four billion poorest living in slums, villages and cities around the world.

There are a myriad of reasons. Police aren’t adequately trained to collect evidence or don’t know how to properly interview child victims. Prosecutors are overloaded with too many cases, and families cannot afford to hire lawyers who will champion their cause. Perpetrators with resources and influence can avoid jail altogether.

These are deep-rooted, systemic problems. But as IJM has worked alongside local authorities in developing nations these past two decades, it has become clear that these are problems with solutions.

IJM lawyers stepped in to guide Doris and Jean through their justice system. Our social workers provided trauma-focused care and support to the girls, and our lawyers advocated against the perpetrators in local courts. Both criminals were convicted just a few weeks ago. The Bolivian school bus driver faces twenty years in prison for rape, and the Kenyan school teacher will spend a decade behind bars for sexual assault. 

As Doris’ mother explains, securing justice for her daughter made her entire community safer:   

“[This bus driver] deserves to be in jail because my daughter isn’t the only one affected. If he remains free, he will keep on doing the same thing. That’s why it’s necessary that there be justice for his victims.”

The inclusion of goal sixteen among the new SDG’s offers a new and desperately needed hope: Getting poor girls into school—and keeping them there—requires something more than classrooms, tuition and uniforms.

It also requires local police who are trained to respond quickly and professionally to reports of abuse, prosecutors to try such cases successfully and courts that operate fairly and competently. In short, it requires justice systems that take criminals who rape children off the streets and out of communities so that violence doesn’t undermine children’s right to an education.   

*A pseudonym